Getting to know Author Smoky Trudeau Zeidel
What drew you to the subject of On the Choptank Shores?
I’ve always been a romantic, and writing a love story just seemed a natural outgrowth of that personality trait. But I’ve also always been a strong supported of religious freedom, and get very angry at Bible thumpers who believe it is all right to subjugate women based on biblical text, which they have a tendency to take out of context.
On the Choptank Shores addresses both these things. First of all, it is a love story. The love between a young wife (Grace) and her decidedly middle-aged husband (Otto), and the love of a big sister for her abused baby sister (Miriam). It is the story of the love for an aging, grief-stricken father (Luther) who is spiraling into a dark world of insanity, and the love of a kind and benevolent God whom Grace knows must exist, despite the crazed ravings of her father, who paints a picture of a vengeful, angry God as he spouts biblical verse to defend his abuse of both Grace and little Miriam. It is a story of the land on which they live, and the power of Mother Nature. Most of all, it is a story of love conquering all.
What do you consider your strengths in terms of your writing?
I think by far my greatest strength is setting description. Setting always plays a pivotal role in my novels. In On the Choptank Shores, the river flowing through the Eastern Shore of Maryland, has a quiet strength, but when pushed, can becoming a raging storm. Grace, the main character in the book, has that same inner strength. She just doesn’t realize it until she, too, is pushed. The river becomes a metaphor for Grace; at times, they are one and the same. I think my descriptions of the river are among the best in the book. This is one of my favorites:
The full moon cast a soft glow across the river like a comfortable shawl, gently caressing oyster boats bobbing to the rhythm of the evening tide. As fishermen motored slowly away from the pier, the water exploded with the bright green sparks of luminescent algae in their wake. Constellations mirrored in the water glowed like a thousand candles flickering on the waves.
The river was the heartbeat of the eastern shore. A living organism, she pulsed in synchronized harmony with the people who lived along her shores, people who depended on her as a child depends on its mother.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
Tony Morrison wrote, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I like that one a lot. But my favorite one is more humorous, by E.L. Doctrow: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
What authors do you admire?
There are so many! I love Willa Cather, for her strong yet stark settings, and her heroines, who tend to be the same. Jose Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author, whose Death With Interruptions is the finest book I have ever read. Mark Twain, for both his hilarious wit and his keen insight and sharp remarks on the social values of his time.
More recently, I love Malcolm R. Campbell’s fantasy adventure novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, for both their strong storylines and characters and the books’ spiritual undertones. I think Ramey Channell’s Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge and Patricia Damery’s Snakes two of the finest novels of 2010. Melinda Clayton wrote a beautiful novel about love and understanding overcoming hatred and intolerance in Appalachian Justice. I could go on and on, but I won’t!
What three things would you want with you on a desert island?
I’m going to take the word “things” literally and assume that doesn’t include people or pets or other living creatures. Let’s see: I’d want my Kindle, fully loaded with every book on the planet so I’d never run out of things to read. A generator to create electrical power, so I could keep the Kindle charged. And a good pocket knife. You can do a lot with a good pocket knife. If you allowed me five, I’d add a box of writing materials that magically never ran low, and a cook stove with a never-ending propane tank. Although, without a pot or pan to cook in, that might not do me a lot of good.
What is your favorite word?
What do you do when you’re not writing?
My husband and I try to spend as much time outdoors as we can. We love to go for hikes up in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, near our home in suburban Los Angeles, or, a little farther away, at Joshua Tree National Park, or the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs. If we have time, we enjoy escaping to the Sierras to camp, especially in our favorite national park, Kings Canyon. We love going to the ocean and exploring the tide pools. Growing up in farm county, in the Midwest, tide pools and everything else having to do with the ocean just fascinates me. We have a close circle of good friends we enjoy spending time with, and we have a blended family with two adult children each; we like spending time with them. Most of all, though, I like to read. I read a lot.
Who is your greatest cheerleader?
Unquestionably, my husband. No matter what we may have planned, no matter what he may want us to do with our time, he always makes sure I put my writing first. He makes sure my writing space is clean and comfortable. He walks our dog, or fixes me lunch, or tends to whatever needs tending in order to give me the time to work. He’s a classical guitarist, so he also spends a lot of time practicing while I write. It’s wonderful, listening to beautiful guitar music in the background while I am working.
But you know, my publisher, Kimberlee Williams of Vanilla Heart Publishing, is a pretty good cheerleader, too. I was very sick following surgery that didn’t go well last winter. I got very depressed, and almost gave up writing. Kimberlee gave me the space I needed, when I needed it, but when I was ready to get back into the swing of things she was right there, ready to help me in any way she could. Not many writers can say that about their publishers. It’s a pretty terrific company, Vanilla Heart is.
Where do you write?
My husband and I , along with my college-aged daughter, live in a tiny little cottage in the hills above the San Gabriel valley. Our house is only 800 square feet; not much room for three people, three cats, and a very large dog! But tacked onto the back of the cottage is this ramshackle porch-like room. We call it the milk room, because it reminds me of the room on my granddaddy’s farm that he used to call by that name (although I don’t know why; it’s where the freezer was, and they stored cases of Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper out there, but never any milk that I remember). My room is tiny, maybe six feet wide by fifteen feet long. The floor has a two-inch slant; I have the right side of my desk propped up on a couple old ARCs (advance review copies) from my first book. I struggle to keep my chair from rolling downhill and crashing into the wall as I write.
Uncomfortable as that sounds, it really isn’t! There’s always a beautiful breeze up here in the hills, so except during the worst summer heat waves, the milk room stays cool. I have a magnificent view of the San Gabriel Valley, and the mountains beyond, and since I draw so much inspiration from nature in my work, the view is an absolute gift. Sometimes, I can look out the window and see mule deer, or coyotes, passing through. It’s inspiring.
I have artwork on the walls: my collection of masks from around the world, and a couple of bark paintings from Mexico. My dog is usually underfoot; at least a couple of the three cats usually is around, too. I love my milk room.
Since you have multiple books published, do you have any advice for writers struggling to publish their first?
Yes, I do. First, study your craft. People tend to think they can just decide to write a book and sit down to write one. But writing a book is an art, just like playing the piano and painting a masterpiece are art forms. Yo-Yo Ma didn’t sit down at the cello one day and decide to play, and produce exquisite music. Picasso didn’t decide one day to paint and produce The Guitarist. They studied their craft. Writers need to do that, too.
Second, get your book professionally edited. I’ve seen so many books full of errors because writers had their Aunt Frieda or their next-door neighbor edit for them, even though neither had a bit of editing experience. Editors know things your aunt and your neighbor don’t know about what a good manuscript looks like. They can find mistakes you probably didn’t even know were mistakes. Don’t skimp on this step.
Third, don’t give up just because your book isn’t accepted at first. I used to teach a fiction writing workshop at the community college level, and I would tell my students, publishing a book is like running into a wall at full speed. When you hit that wall, you knock yourself out and bloody your nose in the process. But if you pick yourself up, wipe the blood from your face, and say, “Gee, that felt good! I think I’ll do it again!” you’ll eventually knock that wall down. The same goes for getting your book published. If you’ve studied your craft and had your book professionally edited, and if, of course, your story is any good, you will find a publisher.
Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is the author of two novels, short stories, the new combo-writing book containing her two books especially for writers, and a photo/essay collection reflecting on the natural world, She was lead editor for Vanilla Heart Publishing’s 2010 Nature’s Gifts anthology, and a 2003 Pushcart Prize nominee. An ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature, when she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and fighting the urge to speak in haiku.
The tragic deaths of her mother and two younger siblings have left Grace Harmon responsible for raising her sister Miriam and protecting her from their abusive father, Luther, a zealot preacher on a downward spiral toward insanity. Otto Singer charms Grace with his courtship and devotion to his brother, Henry. But after their marriage, Otto is unable to share with Grace the terrible secret he has kept more than twenty years. Otto believes he is responsible for a tragedy that claimed the life of a young woman and left Henry severely brain damaged. Then tragedy strikes just when Otto’s secret is uncovered, unleashing demons that threaten to destroy the entire family. Can Grace find the strength to save her sister—her husband—them all?